Brain Pickings

The Speech Chain: A Vintage Illustrated Guide to the Science of Language

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A mid-century primer on how verbal messages progress from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener.

Given my documented soft spot for all kinds of vintage anatomy, I was intrigued to come across The Speech Chain: The Physics and Biology of Spoken Language (public library) — a short 1963 book that promises to cover “a significant subject in an interdisciplinary manner,” exploring the science of speech and featuring one of the most beautifully designed mid-century book covers I’ve ever come across. Today, in the age of constantly evolving textual and visual communication media, from Twitter to Instagram to Vine, the book reminds us why speech is the one — possibly the only — enduring and universal mode of relaying ideas:

Human society relies heavily on the free and easy interchange of ideas among is members and, for one reason or another, man has found speech to be his most convenient form of communication.

Through its constant use as a tool essential to daily living, speech has developed into a highly efficient system for the exchange of even our most complex ideas. It is a system particularly suitable for widespread use under the constantly changing and varied conditions of life.

It all sounds fine enough, until we realize the book — which makes such statements of questionable causal implication as “the widespread use of books and printed matter may very well be an indication of a highly developed civilization, but so is the greater use of telephone systems,” “areas of the world where civilization is most highly developed are also the areas with the greatest density of telephones,” and “countries bound by social and political ties are usually connected by a well developed telephone system” — was published by the educational division of Bell Telephone Laboratories. As we lament the the rise of “sponsored content” in contemporary media, a book from half a century ago reminds us that publishing and corporate propaganda have always coexisted, and have always elicited outrage.

That said, the book does offer a wealth of fascinating science, including a number of delightful diagrams:

'The Speech Chain: the different forms in which a spoken messages exist in its progress from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener.'

'The human vocal organs.'

'Outlines for the vocal tract during the articulation of various vowels.'

'The wavelengths and corresponding spectra of the vowels 'uh' (top) and 'ah' (bottom).

'Vocal tract configurations and corresponding mouth configurations for three different vowels. (The peaks of the spectra represent vocal tract resonances. Vertical lines for individual harmonics are not shown.)'

'Diagram of the auditory pathways linking the brain with the ear.'

'The cochlear portion of the inner ear.'

'Diagram of a section through the core of the cochlea.'

'Patterns showing the relationship between second format transition and place-of-articulation of consonants.'

In 1993, the book was reissued with cover art by Keith Haring:

Pair The Speech Chain with Lilli Lehmann’s 1902 illustrated guide to singing.

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